Hydrogen could be a key renewable fuel source in the future, but considering it's the most abundant element in the universe it's surprisingly tricky to produce. Zapping hydrogen out of water through a process called electrolysis is the cleanest way, but the catalysts required are rare-Earth metals like platinum. Researchers at Washington State University have now developed a quick and inexpensive alternative, making a "nanofoam" catalyst out of nickel and iron that they say performed better than usual.

Water electrolysis hasn't quite made it to industrial scale yet, mostly due to the costs of those catalysts and the high energy input required to trigger the reaction. Improving these areas is a key area of research, with scientists tackling the problem by using catalysts such as inexpensive molybdenum sulfide, and hybrid solid-state electrolyzers.

The WSU researchers used nickel and iron, two cheap and abundant metals, as a catalyst. From those they created a nanofoam, a material that resembles a sponge on the atomic level. With a large amount of surface area making contact with the water, the nanofoam is able to efficiently trigger the reaction, and the team found that the material worked better and required less energy than the more expensive catalysts, losing very little activity over a 12-hour stability test.

Large amounts of the nanofoam can be produced relatively cheaply and apparently in a matter of minutes. The researchers haven't outlined the process involved to make it, but they describe it as a "very simple approach that could be used easily in large-scale production."

With the lab tests proving promising, the next steps for the researchers is to scale things up for larger-scale tests.

The research was published in the journal Nano Energy.

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